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Cinema of sensitivity to the world

The 17th edition of Millennium Docs Against Gravity, Poland's biggest documentary film festival, is going to be a hybrid affair. In addition to the seven cities that are the site of its venues, of which Poznań is one (for the first time ever), selected films will also be shown online making them available all across the country.

The picture presents a group of 7 men in a medical care room. They are in medical garments with masks on their faces. One man is holding a little child on his knees. - grafika artykułu
For Sama, photograph courtesy of film distributor

The slogan of this year's edition: "sensitivity to the world", is inspired by Olga Tokarczuk's famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The slogan accurately captures not only the spirit of the festival, but also reality cinema directors' approach of sensitivity in exploring and responding to the world around them. 

Thirteen films by eight female and seven male directors have been entered in the main competition. In her picture The Earth is Blue As an Orange, Iryna Tsilyk portrays the war in Ukraine seen through the eyes of a Donbas family. Anna, a single mother with four children, draw inner strength to remain in her home from cinema: together with her children, she makes an amateur film depicting their harrowing experience. "In my stories and documentaries, I keep returning to the same topics: the balance between war and peace and the image of home and family as a shelter and fortress, even if that is not what they really are", says the director. A woman's experience of a protracted war has also been the focus in For Sama directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts. The film is an account of five years of the Aleppo revolution: a video journal created to be seen by the protagonist's daughter. Waad is compelled to choose between leaving town to save Sama's life and continuing his fight for freedom. Known to Polish viewers for her moving Królowa ciszy (The Queen of Silence), Agnieszka Zwiefka will present her latest documentary Blizny (Scars). Her protagonist is a charismatic Vetrichelvi, a poet and a Tamil Tigress. After years of fighting in the Sri Lankan Civil War, Vetrichelvi sets out on a journey to write a book about her sisters-in-arms. In State Funeral, Sergei Loznitsa reconstructs the final farewell to Joseph Vissarionovich (Stalin) using rare and previously unknown colour photos. 

Millennium Docs Against Gravity and the vital role it plays in Polish culture are commonly associated with cinema of engagement that does not shy away from discussing human rights violations. Without a doubt, one of this edition's most moving and shocking films is Welcome to Chechnya. The very brave, righteous and sensitive documentary filmmaker David France decided to put his life on the line to show the world the extermination of LGBT+ people in Chechnya under the rule of Ramzan Kadyrov. His voice is one of strong protest against heinous crimes. An empathetic audience is sure to walk away in utter shock. Documentaries of this kind should be watched as widely as possible in Poland where LGBT+ people are an increasingly difficult position. Welcome to Chechnya should also be seen as a grim stern warning against what cruel people in power who hate their neighbours and deny them humanity may do. 

The 17th edition of the festival will include the first Polish Documentary Film Competition. The organizers intend it as a way to celebrate and promote the country's outstanding reality movies. After all, the Polish School of Documentary Filmmaking is a wonderful tradition and a precious cultural "brand". Eleven productions have been entered into the competition. The film Ewenement Molesty (Scandal) directed by Bartosz Paduch will have its first screening. Marcin Borchardt's Tony Halik. Born for Adventure, a portrait of a famous Polish traveller, will also have its world premiere. The document Z wnętrza (From Within) will show a lesser-known side of the Beksiński family. In it, viewers will hear the stories of its members, as captured on home video by Zdzisław Beksiński. The competition will confer two awards: the Best Polish Film Award and the Award for the Best Production in the Polish Competition funded by the Smakjam post-production studio. 

The Cinéma, mon amour section will feature the latest motion pictures dedicated to outstanding filmmakers and movie genres. There will also be portraits of popular cinema geniuses. We will see QT8: The First Eight, in which Tara Wood examines the life of an eccentric film viewer and director from his time working at Video Archives, a California video rental place, to the premiere of his production Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It took her five years to complete the project, the work being protracted due mainly to the infamous involvement of Harvey Weinstein's studio and the scandal surrounding him. Wood did not regain her rights to the project until July 2018 when, relieved, she announced: "We are thrilled, and eager to conduct our final interviews and complete the documentary, free from Harvey Weinstein and his complicit cohorts." In the study of the cult horror film The Exorcist directed by William Friedkin, Alexandre O. Philippe created a lyrical essay, exploring not only the process of the creation and the nature of this masterpiece, but also the peculiar threads of faith and fate in the life of its author. In the past, in a film entitled 78/52, this consummate documentary filmmaker vivisects the famous scene from Psycho. In Memory: The Origins of Alien, he looks at the creative process behind the production of Ridley Scott's Alien. In Romantic Comedy, the writer, musician and actress Elizabeth Sankey helps look into highly successful films that earn themselves the love of many viewers. Considered to be shameful indulgence, the genre is rarely the object of critical analysis. And yet it is worth one's while to look at them carefully with a cooler head because no matter how problematic they may be, romantic comedies reflect our experiences and love desires. 

The Festival's programme includes films that depict religion at its extreme. In Jak Bóg szukał Karela (Polish God), Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák go to die-hard-Catholic Poland: they visit the ultra-kitschy Licheń sanctuary, go on a pilgrimage to Jasna Góra Monastery, and meet the staff of Father Director's (Fr. Rydzyk's) infamous radio station. 

The festival will also feature the latest productions by the masters: Werner Herzog's Nomad. In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin and Hubert Sauper's Epicentro

The Festival's in-person version in Poznań will take place at the Muza cinema on 4-13 September. The success of the May online campaign "Docs Against Isolation" has demonstrated that online audiences are eager to watch artistic documentaries. And that is precisely why the organizers chose to make selected films from their programme available on the mdag.pl website between 19 September and 4 October.

Marek S. Bochniarz

translation: Krzysztof Kotkowski

Polish films will be shown with English subtitles. English-language films will be screened with Polish subtitles, except for films for young audiences, which will be provided with a Polish voiceover. Films in a language other than the above will have both Polish and English subtitles.

© Wydawnictwo Miejskie Posnania 2020